7 ways to respond to students with empathy

It’s not always easy to respond to student behavior with empathy. But when you show students you understand and respect their needs, you build mutual trust and rapport.

Use the tips below to practice empathy. You can also download a one-page version of these tips.

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1. Follow the “Platinum Rule,” not the “Golden Rule.”

You’re probably familiar with the Golden Rule: Treat others the way you want to be treated. But empathy relies on the Platinum Rule: Treat others the way they want — and need — to be treated. This approach puts the focus on understanding what students need from you instead of what you think they need.

2. Ask open-ended questions.

Don’t assume you know how a student is feeling. It’s important to be attentive to students’ nonverbal cues to understand how they might be feeling, but it’s equally important to ask them directly. When you ask open-ended questions, students can share what’s on their minds without feeling like you’ve already sized up the situation. For example, asking “Is there something about today that’s been hard for you?” invites more conversation than “It looks like you’re having a rough day. Is that true?”

Open-ended questions can be tricky for students who have language-based learning differences. To support these conversations, you can offer options by saying, “I noticed you had your head down in class today. Are you frustrated, angry, or nervous about something?”

3. Set aside your own reaction.

Responding with empathy means letting students’ reactions come first. You don’t have to bury your own feelings or agree with or accept their behavior. But try to keep your focus on hearing students out and seeing the situation through their eyes.

4. Use “I” statements to avoid blame.

“You” statements, such as “you distracted other students in class today,” can make students defensive. Try turning the same thought into an “I” statement, like “I felt that other students were distracted by your behavior today.” “I” statements allow you to talk about situations without placing blame. These questions also allow you to acknowledge your own feelings, and may encourage students to consider your emotions. 

5. Actively listen to what students say.

Empathy requires active listening. That means giving your full attention and listening to both a student’s words and tone of voice. When you use active listening, think through and state in your own words what you think you’ve heard. You can then confirm by asking, “Is that what you’re telling me?” That simple question gives students an opening to correct any misunderstanding and shows respect for their feelings and perspective.

6. Don’t jump into “fix it” mode.

As teachers, we’re so used to fixing things that you may immediately try to find solutions. Sometimes, it’s more useful to just listen and understand what’s wrong. Students might not even want you to fix the problem. After you understand the problem, you can talk with the student about possible solutions and what support they may (or may not) want from you.

7. Validate feelings.

Tell students they have the right to feel the way they feel. You may not agree with their choices or may even think they’re overreacting. But it’s important to recognize that the way they’re feeling is real to them. You can say, “Your feelings aren’t right or wrong” as a way to show respect for how they’re feeling.

By using these techniques, you’ll show students you want to understand them better and value them as individuals. For other ideas about acting with empathy read about how to use student and family questionnaires, or try a warm-up routine that builds rapport in your classroom.


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